Dominic Cummings, the limitations of excellence and the need for societal re-imagination

Brilliant analysis (H/T John) from Sam Freeman who worked with Dominic Cummings in Whitehall, firstly on why some the rigidity of what Cummings complained about is actually grounded in reality (and has the same overworking into the Irish Civil Service too, never mind the NICS)…

Whitehall is still overly attached to a model whereby high-flying generalists are moved too frequently between different policy areas; where technical specialists are kept out of decision-making; and where hierarchies are rigidly enforced.

These more justified Cummings’ criticisms are not new. Lord Fulton’s report on the civil service, back in 1968, noted the lack of specialists, particularly those with scientific training, in key roles; the tendency to rely on generalists and the absence of modern project management techniques.

Whatever else he is I’ve always deferred to Cummings on his understanding of the speed at which technology is changing the social and commercial environments, but I’ve also taken the view that his idea of speeding government up almost at all costs was an enticing but wrong way forward. Sam thinks so too:

…[there is] the lack of incentive within the civil service to reform. But there’s another, bigger reason, that Cummings largely ignores: it suits the way politicians like to work. The standard ministerial tenure is around two years. A mere 1 in 10 of the junior ministers appointed in 2010 made it to the end of the Parliament.

Given the limited time they have to make an impact the last thing politicians want is a machinery that is geared to long-term, expert-driven, and evidence-based policy making.

There’s a reason why all of Cummings’ treasured examples of high-performance either come from the American military (Manhattan Project; DARPA) or single party states like Singapore or China.

They are typically long-term, highly technical programmes, undertaken with no or minimal public transparency, and with the role of politician limited to signing cheques.

The absence of any major social reforms from his analysis of success is something of a warning sign that what he wants is not in fact possible, certainly within the confines of British democracy.

The truly baffling thing about Cummings’ worldview is the refusal to see the contradiction between his technocratic utopia of expert scientists driving paradigmatic change and his own rock-solid conviction that whatever policies he happens to support right now must be implemented at maximum speed.

For all his demands for a scientific approach to government not a single policy either of us worked on at the DfE had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial, because they were rolled out nationally without any piloting.

In technocrat utopia a major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation. In the real-world huge amounts of capital (real and political) were spent arguing academies were the way forward, so the suggestion that they might not work couldn’t be countenanced.

So rather than breaking with the past Cummings was pushing new technocratic models of governance without ever considering testing them (disciplined pluralism) to see if they work. If nothing else it shows Dom was a man in hurry, who had little time to listen to the counsel of others, or any ability to speak ‘human’.

Underneath it all was the sense that we all ‘know the model’ so there is no need for trial and error process by which we gradually improve the world (if we are so minded), with, as Collier and Kay put it, our “distinctive capacity for imaginative and creative play”. To the technocrat par excellence Cummings, this means nothing.

We are, at the end of the day, more than just expressive individuals shouting on the internet. As I noted in the Irish Times podcast, deliberation works by creating imaginative and intellectual spaces that weren’t there before. As innately communitarian creatures we need to meet face to face to develop our common purposes.